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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bartimaeus Trilogy

book review Bartimaeus trilogybook review Bartimaeus trilogy book review Bartimaeus trilogy

Book 1: The Amulet of Samarkand ¦¦ Book 2: Golem's Eye ¦¦ Book 3: Ptolemy's Gate

book review bartimaeus trilogy

One of the benchmarks for me is: am I savoring the book too long because I don't want it to end? This usually happens when I love a character or characters in a book; I simply do not want them to leave.

For instance, I did not savor Da Vinci Code - I wanted to read the end, I was not particularly attached to any of the characters.

Whereas, I was so smitten with Bartimaeus that I did not want to read on till the end as there would be no more Bartimaeus. So, I exercised supreme will-power and read only a few pages a day for the last several chapters of Book 3: Ptolemy's Gate!

If that sounds weird, well, welcome to my world:-)

For that, as well as for certain factors neatly bulleted somewhere below, I am gladly rating this a 4-star on a 5-star scale for story-telling, designing an unforgettable character, throwing in a few unconventional elements and for making me feel like it was time well-spent:-)

About a month ago, I started reading Bartimaeus trilogy, despite it being categorized under 'young adult' section - after all, i am young at heart and am an adult technically ;-)

Now that I am done reading them, I am left with a mixed feeling; rather than reviewing individual books, I'll just generally clump the three together to express my take on them.

Also, i'd rather refrain from doing a 'compare and contrast' reference to Harry Potter - Nathaniel does not really in any way remind me of young Mr.H.Potter, The Good.

That being said, almost all fantasy novels I have read involve some unlikely young lad getting inadvertently caught up in things too big for his shoes, favored by Destiny, and coming out glorious and pretty much unscathed. This trilogy is no exception, except the last part :-)

Spoiler alert: I do throw out plots and such here, so, read with discretion.

Of the three main characters - Bartimaeus, Kitty, Nathaniel - if one ends up liking Bartimaeus the Djinn the best, then Mr.Stroud is to be held responsible. Kitty comes next for me and I sort of reluctantly liked Nathaniel. It appears that this must have been Mr.Stroud's idea all along: like he sort of did not in any way want to immortalize Nathaniel by bestowing him with admirable noble traits?

The story is sort of age-old: Good triumphs over Evil, time and time again.

What makes this interesting are the little details Mr.Stroud spins:

  • setting: a sort of modern day London (the actual period seemed irrelevant, so, i didn't try to calculate, but, there are references to cars and electric lights and such, so, can't be too far back); ruled by magicians who are the upper class; who subjugate the commoners (the ones kept ignorant, who are not allowed to learn about magic); magicians are vain, power-hungry and lack empathy
  • the magic: is not some innate skill bestowed on a chosen few by birth, but, is a careful study handed down through centuries, where certain groups of people have learnt to summon, bind and control - in descending order of power - marids, afrits, djinn, foliots and imps - and other assorted spirits from The Other Place to do their bidding
  • the catch: Djinn, afrit, marid have varying set of powers and talents, but, when summoned in the proper way, they feel the irrestible tug of their essence and cannot but obey their master, the summoner; however, they are always looking for a way to trip up the summoner and devour them
  • narration: there is a generic narrator, and then there is Bartimaeus' narration - wry humor, sarcasm and wit punch the djinn's narratives (of course, footnotes did get a bit tedious at times)
  • the curiously delightful: names for various magical effects-Detonation, Inferno, Flux, Concealment; names for various punishment magician summoners use to control the spirits: Stipples, Systemic Vise, Inverted Skin and Shivering Fire.
  • the star: Bartimaeus, a 5000-yr-old Djinn, after all the trilogy is named after him, isn't it?!

Young Nathaniel is sold by his parents as an apprentice to a callous mediocre magician Underwood, who does not teach him much and does not have his back at any time. Nathaniel quickly teaches himself a lot more than apprentices his age could hope to learn.

He feels slighted by a more powerful older magician Lovelace and plots revenge by summoning a 5000 yr old djinni Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace and plant it in Underwood's study to deflect suspicion.

Lovelace, of course, is not above suspicion - he is involved in some underhand dealings in obtaining the said Amulet. One thing leads to the other, and with Bartimaeus' reluctant help Nathaniel thwarts Lovelace's coup attempt and ingratiates himself with Mr.Prime Minister.

Then, soon, a powerful magician Ms.Whitwell takes him under her wing and he gets more powerful with his magic, and is appointed head of Internal Affairs, at a young teen-age, to the envy and spite of many senior magicians.

Meanwhile, a smallish group of kids, dubbed the Resistance, seem to be causing minor chaos all over town. They seem to have different forms of resilience to magic. The prominent one in this group is Kitty Jones, who was hit by the Black Tumbler aimed at her and her friend Jakob, for simply causing a minor accident while playing with Jakob, escapes unharmed for the most part, while Jakob suffers the consequences of the Black Tumbler and is scarred for life.

Things happen to Kitty that make her hard and cold when it comes to dealing with magicians, understandably. And, is hunted by the head of Internal Affairs, Nathaniel, and his minions.

Meanwhile, a mysterious villain unleashes a golem in town, possibly in an attempt to take over the government. With Kitty's help, Nathaniel foils the villain's attempt; Bartimaeus plays a major role in all this, of course; and Kitty sort of saves Nathaniel and heeding Bartimaeus' suggestion drops out of sight, while Nathaniel is led to believe Kitty died saving his life.

Nathaniel, now the Information Minister, thinks all magicians are somehow essential and valuable to the world and tries his best to protect his class. Kitty, with all her burden, works for the commoners' good. Bartimaeus works for his own good, if he can manage it.

In Book 3, several things happen, things definitely go out of control and finally the villains are thwarted and Good sort of triumphs. The references to Ptolemy and Bartimaeus' affinity for him are quite interesting. I'll leave it at that for now.

The first two books were fine. Book 3, Ptolemy's Gate, gets a little too weird for me, though. Here's why:

  • on a whim, one of the more colorful magicians manages to successfully summon and trap a djinn within his person
  • the djinn takes over his mind, and body, of course
  • basically, this is the age-old fairly scary 'possessed by a demon' idea
  • all spirits are purportedly part of one whole mass, their essences mingle and they float about in The Other Place; however, each has a name, a preferred form and other such human baggage
  • human soul somehow travels through a gateway to the Other Place, but, human body ages as a result, among other things

Things I did like, though:

  • the possibility of djinn and humans having a potentially 'equal' relationship, as if that is ever going to happen - the djinn are of course very powerful, and very old
  • resilience to magic - not counter-magic, not good magic vs. evil magic, but, simple plain resilience - that was quite refreshing
  • a commoner can learn magic - nothing special about magic itself - it is just a set of rules of summoning, binding and controlling the spirits, which if applied correctly, produces desired results, over and over again; so, why should it not be accessible and applicable to all humans? this eliminates the Chosen Few syndrome most fantasy novels assume
  • Bartimaeus - having been around for centuries, his cynical view of the humankind and their world, his slick and insightful comments, and his affinity for Ptolemy for a good reason all make it incredibly appealing, one cannot help but like Bartimaeus

Aside: Earlier this year, before i cycled back to the fantasy fiction mode, i was saturating myself with a few good books in a slightly different genre. Somehow i never felt like writing my thoughts on them - many literary critics have done that well: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Middleman and Other Stories by Bharati Mukherjee, Mistress by Anita Nair.

... especially considering that The Namesake* by Lahiri is a movie now, I guess there might be some renewed interest in her books:-)

* I did not like The Namesake, the book :-(

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